Adventures in the Eco-Friendly ELF

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 03, 2017

Brian Duncan was a recreational runner, but that was before he became a platoon leader with the Ohio Army National Guard's 612th Engineer Batallion in Iraq, disarming roadside bombs. When he got wounded, running was out, but then he discovered biking. After becoming an engineering consultant to NATO, he started using a recumbent bike to circumnavigate Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Former Army engineer Brian Duncan with his modified ELF, which has added solar panels, a bigger motor, a trailer, and even a pop-up camper for overnight road trips. (Brian Duncan photo)

One thing led to another, and Duncan—now a civilian—is still biking, and when I caught up with him he was on two wheels in El Paso. He’s taking his touring bike from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida on something of a reconnaissance mission. Can he do the same trip, he wants to know, in his ELF?

Duncan on the road in El Paso on a bicycle scouting mission that could lead to his taking an ELF across the country. (Brian Duncan photo)

What, you’ve never heard of the ELF? It’s essentially a single or two-passenger enclosed electric bicycle with a removable battery pack. In either one- or two-seater form (starting at $8,895), it has a removable 48-volt lithium-ion battery with charger, a small 750-watt electric motor, an aluminum frame with “dynamic dampening” suspension in the front, disc brakes, a LED headlight, and an enclosed cargo compartment. Side curtains are available.

You can just ride along in your ELF, but pedal it and you'll get more range (30 miles or so). It’s speed-restricted to 20 mph, so don’t expect to take it on the highway.

The North Carolina-based Organic Transit has now sold close to 1,000 ELFs, both in the U.S. and in Europe (there are buyers in Germany, Holland, Belgium and France).  The plastic “body work” is rudimentary, but it keeps off the rain. And if you’re Brian Duncan, it does even more than that.

You can plug in your ELF--or just remove the small battery and recharge it indoors. (Organic Transit photo)

Duncan has a master’s in engineering management, and worked for two automotive suppliers, so it’s not surprising he chose to improve upon his ELF. He developed side windows for it, a trailer hitch, and has basically turned his urban runabout into a camper. Beefing up the standard 750-watt motor to 1,200 watts, he now tows a trailer with solar panels and luggage space. He had a pop-up trailer custom-made to his specifications at a bike shop, and now he can sleep out on the trail.

“I love my ELF and wish I had it right now,” Duncan told me. “It’s cold here in El Paso right now, and it’s too windy to ride so I’m taking the day off. I like the all-weather aspect of the ELF—when it’s raining, you can just keep on going.” The ELF is seriously equipped. Brian runs it all down in this video:

Rob Cotter, founder and CEO of Organic Transit (and brother to the “Barn Find” guy, Tom Cotter), says not all owners are as adventurous as Brian Duncan. “We occasionally do surveys," Cotter said, "and we have a wide spectrum of customers—the youngest is 16, and the oldest is 94. He lives on an island in Canada, and rides year round. But some people just say they need a quick way to get their kids to school. Some want to clean up their commuter act, and they don’t want to go with regular bicycles. Eighty percent are looking to replace their second cars.”

Christine Lewis out with her ELF and her greyhounds. She charged solely from the California sun for 3.5 years. (courtesy of Christine Lewis)

 Christine Lewis is definitely on the adventurous side. She has owned her ELF since 2013, and for 3.5 years never plugged it in—the built-in solar panels kept the battery charged enough for her drives around Coalinga, California. Often, her greyhounds run alongside.  “We do get a lot of sunny days here in Central California,” Lewis told me. She only just recently had to buy a replacement battery.

Lewis with her ELF dog Pi. (courtesy of Christine Lewis)

“I’m pretty happy with my ELF,” Lewis said.  “It’s an earlier model, so I don’t have all the newest features, but for my purposes, it serves me well. I use the ELF for tooling around town. And when outside with my dogs, I use it to keep up with them.”

Marvin Glenn rode his ELF 1,600 miles back home to Arkansas. (courtesy of Marvin Glenn)

Marvin Glenn is 80 years old, and in his younger days built and sailed a small sailboat around the world, then ran a charter yacht operation for 20 years. But time hasn’t slowed him down much. His ELF was delivered new in Virginia, 1,600 miles from his home in Mena, Arkansas. Did he have the thing shipped? Hell, no—he drove it home.

Glenn lives in the Ouachita National Forest, a mile from the nearest paved road. “The rough, rocky lane connecting our house to the pavement fords a creek that is normally ankle deep,” Glenn said. “Our Subaru Forester has no trouble making it through, but low-slung vehicles and UPS trucks shy away from it. My ELF and I traverse this lane most days to check the mailbox out by the highway.”

According to Glenn, “I doubt the ELF was designed to be used in such harsh conditions, but it has held up surprisingly well so far.”

Cotter said that Organic Transit is looking into new urban uses for ELF-like vehicles—transportation for the disabled, deliveries, even use in drone programs. And how about self-driving ELFs? Cotter said that one is being converted right now, funded by Amazon. “Autonomous ELFs can go on bike paths, cross lawns, traverse college campuses,” he said. “The sky’s the limit.”

Here's a closer look at the ELF, on video:

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